Marine Litter | WWF
© Metsähallitus 2008

Marine litter

Over 80% of marine pollution comes from land-based activities. From plastic bags to pesticides - most of the waste we produce on land eventually reaches the oceans, either through deliberate dumping or from run-off through drains and rivers.
Marine debris or marine litter has long been a problem and threat to marine life. Marine mammals, seabirds and fish die each year from being entangled in or ingesting marine litter.

Often the marine litter is derelict nets and ropes or plastic packaging material and containers. Plastic strapping bands can also be dangerous for inquisitive marine animals like seals and dolphins causing cuts in their skin around their necks or fins. Many marine animals and seabirds can also mistake litter items for prey that can lead to chocking and blocking the breathing passages and stomach.

The Baltic Sea

The marine litter ending up in the Baltic Sea originates mainly from household-related waste (48% of the total sources) and waste generated by recreational or tourism activities (33% of the total sources).

Consumer behaviour is the number one contributor of marine litter in the Baltic Sea. Around 130 tons of polyethylene particles from personal care products are flushed down the household drains in the Baltic Sea catchment area each year!

Plastics - The Ocean menace

Every year 6.4 million tonnes of plastic, with all the toxins they contain, pose a threat to sea life and ecosystems.
Plastic is usually made of cellulose, carbon, petroleum, or natural gas. It consists of long chain made up of many repeating molecular units. For the natural environment, plastic is a foreign body and does not biodegrade.

Pieces smaller than 5mm in size are called microplastic. Sources for microplastics in the ocean include cosmetic products, textiles such as fleece jackets, rubbish washed from land and ships that dump their plastic waste in the ocean (even though it is prohibited).

The fishing industry accounts for 10% of marine debris. Nets and fishing gear get lost or are thrown away into the ocean. These "ghost nets" continue trapping fish for many decades.

Plastic can transport plant and animal species across great distances to other regions. These passengers unsettle the balance of the sensitive ecosystems of their destinations. Plastic can also cover coral, marine sponges and mussel beds, preventing species from populating them and cutting of marine organisms from the exchange of oxygen.

Toxins end up on the perpetrators plate

Plastics often contain additives that lend the product desirable properties - but can damage animals and humans. Bisphenol A, phthalates and brominated flame retardants can adversely affect sexual development, damage genetic material or cause cancer. Pesticides and other toxins that are release into the ocean area are also absorbed by the plastic.

All of these toxins penetrate the fatty tissue of marine organisms and end up in the food chain. Particularly at risk are all those animals at the end of the food chain: sea birds, seals, whales or sharks - and not least of all, humans.

Marine litter in numbers

450 - It takes around 450 years for a PET bottle to completely decompose

57 - Marine animals get caught in pieces of plastic and die painful deaths. 57% of these incidents are caused by derelict fishign gear

5  - pieces of plastic smaller than 5 mm in size are called microplastic

1/3 - Moret han one third of leatherback sea turtles have balls of plastic material in their stomach. They mistake them for jellyfish, the main source of food.

WWF at work

Working together with partners, WWF has already collected nearly 300 tonnes of "ghost nets". In Germany, WWF recovered more than 2 tonnes of nets from the Baltic Sea in 2014 in collaboration with the German Maritime Museum and arhaeomare e.V.

Since 2015, WWF has been working together with the recycling company Tönsmeier to recover and recycle other nets in the German Baltic Sea.

The MARELITT project was launched in 2016. It covers the entire Baltic Sea and aims to further develop new environmentally sound exploration and retrieval methods for nets. The project which is supported by the EU also focuses on how to process and recycle these nets in cooperation with partners from 5 countries.

WWF is also calling for a ban on additives made of microplastics in cosmetics and cleaning agents.

You can help


Avoid: plastic packaging, plastic bags and isposable items. Put your waste where it belongs.

Don't use: toothpaste and cosmetics containing plastic microbeads.

Inform: yourself about toxins in plastic and avoid, in particular, products made of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and PC (polychloride).